Nigeria’s World Cup campaign offered escapism to some back home but the Super Eagles’ pay dispute, that saw players boycott training, left a sour taste in the mouth for others
Mr No1 Authentic Indispensable Mr Nigeria World Wide International, as Lagos resident Udoh Akpan insists on being called on matchdays, fancied his team’s chances of becoming the first African side to reach the quarter-finals. Dressed head-to-toe in the national green and white strip, ribbons of the same colour cascading through his hair, the 45-year-old’s rallying cries were a lone but rousing soundtrack at the downtown national stadium a full three hours before kick-off. Occasionally he waved his placard that breezily predicted Nigeria would “thrash France” 3-0.
“Nigeria up! We will win, in Jesus’s name!” he shouted at a suited passerby, who gave a thumbs up but nevertheless hurried on to join other fans arriving to watch the game.
The method may have been unusual but football and religion are national pastimes, and a similar thrill of hope crackled everywhere in this city of 18 million. Seasonal rains which had lashed Lagos all week gave way to blazing sunshine and, for once, the snarling traffic stilled as hundreds gathered in outdoor spots to watch the country’s first knockout game since 1998 – when France hosted and won the World Cup.
Preparations were far from ideal. A pay dispute meant Nigeria missed a training session last week, prompting the dry headline in Vanguard’s newspaper after their loss: “Eagles win blackmail game, lose to France.”
But before then, everything was possible. “If we win, 90% of the country’s problems will be solved,” declared policeman Paul Azegba at a local joint where a television was hooked up to a crackling generator and plastic chairs scattered under palm trees. Azegba’s theory appears to be supported by the Yale University economist Dean Karlan, whose research last week claimed Nigeria’s win would bring the most happiness. By half-time, France had been denied twice by the soaring goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who prompted raucous cries whenever he flashed on the giant screens. But the fans, using flags as shades from the intense heat, were also frustrated by a disallowed goal and several missed golden opportunities.
Not so Mr No1 Authentic Mr Nigeria. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, of course we’re going to win. God dey on our side [God is on our side],” he said, as he bought bottles of coke for everyone in the immediate vicinity.
Things started to unravel late in the second half. Enyeama went “from hero to zero”, the newspaper This Day wrote. Vanguard was kinder. “They did their best, impressed some Nigerians, but simply lacked what it takes to go far in the World Cup,” its Tuesday editorial noted.
Olakunle Goldenson, a bank worker, sat slumped in his seat after the loss. “This is very painful; it’s very, very painful. It’s just because [midfielder Ogenyi] Onazi was injured, and Mikel [John Obi] was playing big man football [not being a team player],” he said.
Minutes after the final score, several pundits and politicians were taking to the airwaves to demand a “restructuring” of the national football federation, while one fan took offence that the team’s strikers had dedicated earlier goals to their sons. “We should all learn that when you wear the national colours, isn’t for you or for your family but for the whole of Nigeria,” Nathaniel Abdullahi wrote in the Nation.
Still, Nigeria’s usual spirit of defiance prevailed elsewhere. “God knows best why he allowed Nigeria to lose,” said Akpan, alias Mr No1 Authentic Indispensable Mr Nigeria World Wide International. “I know the next World Cup will be our time.”